Tuesday, January 5, 2010


I see a lot of movies -- far more than I blog about -- and I see many of them with my friend Barbara. Barbara is a tough critic. We enjoy arguing about movies. Often her objection is, "That was too manipulative; I don't like having my emotional buttons pushed," a comment that usually leaves me frustrated. All fiction, cinematic or print, is about manipulating the viewers'/readers' reactions. You are trying to get them to laugh or cry or gasp or wonder or sympathize or shudder. Authors push emotional buttons; that's what we do. So the question becomes, When is that legitimate and when not, and if not, why not?

One of the easiest ways to get an emotional reaction from anyone short of H.L. Mencken is to put a child in fictional jeopardy. The problem is that it's also one of the easiest ways to make a reader feel overly manipulated. It can feel not legitimate just because it's too easy. And yet children are in jeopardy all the time: from illness, from war, from famine, from sociopaths, from neglectful or abusive parents, from life. Charting the line between honest exploration of a child in danger and pushing Barbara's buttons is not simple.

Jodi Picoult, popular NEW YORK TIMES bestseller, uses the kid-in-danger formula often. In her latest, HANDLE WITH CARE, I think she crossed the line. [WARNING: SPOILER AHEAD] Six-year-old Willow O'Keefe was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a disease of very brittle bones that break at a touch. The majority of the novel concerns a law suit brought by her parents against a doctor. That far, the novel felt legitimate to me, especially since Picoult writes from everyone's viewpoint, using multiple first person with great skill. However, in the last ten pages of the novel, the parents win their law suit -- after which Willow falls through the ice on a pond and drowns.

I felt massively manipulated.

Yes, kids drown. But this was not a book about losing a kid that way. The ending felt thrown in for shock value, and I felt bitterly disappointed. But I also asked myself: Have I ever killed off a character just for shock value?

Yes. But not once past my first few "beginner" novels. And not through an accident unrelated to the plot.

Last week I found out that Gardner Dozois is taking my novella "Act One" for his Best of the Year. I am very pleased about this. The novella also concerns people born with disabilities -- dwarfism and a genetic change I invented -- but none of them fall through the ice in the last few pages. If Barbara read SF (which she does not) that is at least one charge I could escape. Did I manipulate too much in other ways? Well -- that's for my readers to decide. If any of you read the novella, please do let me know.


Amy Sisson said...

I completely agree on Handle with Care. I wrote a longish essay about it, because while I was willing to forgive Picoult's manipulation in My Sister's Keeper (the book), I couldn't quite forgive her for Handle with Care. And I had to try like mad to justify my willingness to forgive her for My Sister's Keeper in the first place!

I also disliked the mom tucking the insurance check into the coffin. First, the insurance company will want to know why the huge check wasn't cashed -- they're not just going to assume "Oh, whew! We got off scott-free!" Second, the family is STILL in massive debt due to the illness. They still need that money, or at least some of it. They should use it to get out of debt and pay for the other child's education, then donate the rest to a foundation studying that disease, if they feel compelled not to profit unfairly.

Steven Francis Murphy said...

I got zapped with the "emotionally manipulative" tag by Lois Tilton when she reviewed a story of mine. Much like you, I scratched my head thinking, "Well, that is my job, isn't it? Manipulate the reader?"

When I saw Avatar, however, I had an a-ha moment per the "emotionally manipulative" charge.

The protag is more or less wholesome and without serious character flaws. The Antag, on the other hand, has not one redeeming trait. The same could be said for Avatar where it is the Evil Corporation versus the Noble Native Population.

How could you not root for the Na'vi?

In any case, it is nice to know I am not the only one who gets frustrated with the bit about manipulation.

S. F. Murphy

Unknown said...

I read "Act One" a few months ago in Asimov's and loved it. I was actually thinking just last night that I wanted to return to it and read it again. It was the only story all year that I stayed up late into the night to finish.

I do not recall feeling emotionally manipulated at any point in the story.

Brendan said...

A writer probably isn't doing a proper job if emotional manipulation isn't part of what they write, but the trick is to hide it and make it 'real'. This is why I find many reviews for book and film unreliable for helping me with my selections of what I want, because they have seen all the tricks and are no longer conned by them. They give lower ratings as a result.

TheOFloinn said...

Manipulation is OK.

Blatant and obvious manipulation is not OK.

Douglas Lucas said...

I wonder if Barbara's comment (or others' similar comments against feeling "manipulated") has more to do with the timing of the manipulation rather than with manipulation per se.

An example of poorly-timed manipulation, at least poorly-timed for me as an audience member, would be the manipulation in many big TV shows -- admittedly, I don't watch TV really so I can't give any particular show names; I just sit down with my fiancee from time to time and watch a bit here and there.

Many of the TV shows seem to have a sort of Pavlonian approach to "rewarding" the audience in a timed way. Oh no, the contestant's in trouble for x minutes, but we'll be reassured/happy in x+5 minutes; and, the pattern continues, so while we watch we are manipulated into predictable, cliche emotional states that unsophisticated viewers might not recognize as a formula.

But if the "formula" (or "structure" if you prefer) is sufficiently well-done so that a sophisticated audience doesn't feel manipulated, even though they are being manipulated, are they going to complain? If you are having a good time, and don't ever notice you're being manipulated, are you going to complain about manipulation?

Count among those who really enjoyed "Act One." =D

Nancy Kress said...

Thank you for the nice comments about "Act One." Also, this set of Comments has some really good insights about writing. This interaction is why I like blogging.

Jumper said...

I thought I knew what I felt about emotional manipulation in fiction. Now I see I need to examine this more closely. Everyone here has made some good comments but I feel have not put their fingers on it quite.
I think it has something to do with our willing suspension of disbelief when experiencing fiction. (I tend to notice it more in movies.) But exactly what, I don't know!

TheOFloinn said...

One of the commentors on this post on Seamus Heaney's poem mid-term break and the single most terrifying line in English poetry made the comment that that line, at the culmination of the poem, "is one I've used with my sixth-form students (= 17/18-year-olds) to explain just what 'pathos' means, and to try and rescue - at least for litcrit purposes - 'pathetic' from its current meaning among the young. It's also a wonderful way of showing them how to distinguish real evocation of emotion from sentimentality.

And right there, she may have put her finger on the sort of manipulation readers recoil from: when they are presented with easy sentiment rather than felt emotions.

TheOFloinn said...

Oops. Here's the link to the poem:


TheOFloinn said...

Regarding art, not writing, but not unrelated:


bluesman miike Lindner said...

I haven't read HANDLE WITH CARE, but I wonder why Picoult--not a beginning fictioneer--chose to end her novel that way. Was she cynically tugging heartstrings, knowing that's what her core readers want? Or does she think no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, life really, really will fuck you over?

Has she discussed it?

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